Splitting the atom was a major technological feat for humankind. Releasing energy from it for electricity production was yet another major step towards supporting the unfolding path of civilisation.
The worst memories of the deliberate unleashing of the power of a nuclear device remain the exploding of atomic bombs over Japanese towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, towards the end of the Second World War.
In terms of nuclear accidents of monumental disaster, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine (then in the former Soviet Union) has no match. Many deaths and severe health problems followed this accident. The radioactivity that accompanied the Chernobyl accident was several times higher than what was unleashed by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during the Second World War.
The radiation spread as far as Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and parts of France and Italy. The Chernobyl accident was adjudged to have resulted from human error, including design defects. It was also accompanied by a series of attempts to cover up the impacts, as well as a shrouding of the exploded reactors in defective concrete.
Today, the world is alarmed by the massive impacts of the 8.9 or 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Honshu Island in Japan. The combined effect of the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami has astonished a watching world, brought great misery to the people of Japan, and raised a huge question mark about how prepared we can ever be for natural disasters.
Everyone accepts that Japan is well equipped and prepared to handle earthquakes, with building codes and other emergency infrastructure set to deal with such happenstance. What has added a new twist to the current situation is the impact that the earthquake and tsunami has had on Japan’s nuclear power plants.
An explosion at the Daiichi plant near Fukushima on March 12 raised anxieties. The explosion blew off the upper exterior walls of the plant. The standby diesel generator that would have pumped water to cool the plant failed one hour after the earthquake struck, leading to the overheating of the water and resulting in the explosion.
The authorities announced that the reactor core of the plant was safe, and that there wasn’t a huge radiation leak. Nevertheless, over 100, 000 people had to be moved, owing to fears of radiation impacts. The evacuation zone stretched over 20 kilometres radius of the plant. Over the next few days, the radiation kept below acceptable official levels, although anxiety levels remained high.
A more severe explosion early on March 15 raised radiation levels, increasing fears that the containment vessel of reactor 2 had been damaged. The evacuation of emergency workers from the power plant signified the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe.
The nuclear game is getting a link to soccer in Brazil where there are plans to bring a new nuclear power plant on stream, early enough to provide electricity for the 2014 FIFA World Cup fiesta the country would then be hosting. The country already runs two nuclear power plants that came into use in 1985 and 2000, meeting 50 per cent of the electricity needs of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Environmental concerns are being addressed through pledges to adhere to rules. But pledges are not so reassuring in these matters.
Closer home in Africa, the drive towards nuclear power is gathering momentum. South Africa already invests huge sums in this mode of energy generation and produces 5 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants. Uranium rich countries such as Namibia believe that this is a way to boost economic development. There have even been talks of the possibility of building floating nuclear plants off the coast of Namibia.
Although Namibia is not earthquake prone, this does not sound like an exciting or safe way to go. Apart from the risks involved in operating nuclear power plants, it is not quite clear to whom the country plans to export the surplus electricity that would be generated by this plant. One could venture to say that floating nuclear plants would be dynamic power generators and may be moved closer to export markets, possibly as far away as energy starved Nigeria.
The incident from Japan also underscores the need to move away from mega power infrastructures that depend on extensive distribution grids. It suggests that nations should invest in the development of renewable energy sources from abundant solar, wind, and other resources, rather than embark on high-risk technologies that we cannot quite control.
It is also a time to realise the viability of localised energy provision on the basis of energy autonomy for discrete zones and communities. This would be cheaper to deliver and ensures better energy supply, including during crisis situations.
Considering Nigeria’s emergency response preparedness and capacities in simple areas like fires, oil spills, and industrial accidents, as well as the quality of maintenance of our hydropower and other plants, venturing into the nuclear power arena here is nothing short of courting disaster.